Sitting in a dingy, blue-walled basement room of southern Delhi’s Bhogal, Ahmed Khan Anjam, a 30-year-old Afghan refugee, does not know what the future holds for him. “From a multi-storied palace, we are reduced to a basement. Don’t know where we will go from here,” he says. Miniature flags of both countries—Indian and Afghanistan—are prominently placed in the room.
In the busy streets of Bhogal’s Samman Baazar, it is difficult to notice the basement room of ‘Anjam Knowledge House’ unless one follows Afghan children going in numbers to learn the ‘skills’ necessary to survive in a foreign land.
Anjam, “the English teacher” who came to India in 2017 escaping the warnings of Talibans started this ‘knowledge house’ to train these children who were losing out on learning about the Afghan culture and tradition. “They were smoking cigarettes and consuming drugs. Without any proper guidance, they were going astray. So, I started the classes with a very few students. Gradually, the numbers grew,” says Anjam whose mother and sister are still stuck in Kabul.
He is among thousands of Afghan refugees who have come to India in the last few years since the dominance of Taliban effectively grew in different parts of the country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of June 2023, there are 11,530 Afghan refugees registered with them, among which 2,520 are asylum-seekers.
As India is neither a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention nor a participant in the 1967 refugee protocol, Afghan refugees look upon the UNHCR as the only body for support and assistance. “When I came here, the UNHCR gave me a blue paper. Thereafter, I had to go through a five-hour-long interview before I was issued with a refugee card,” says Anjam.
“The refugee card at least gives you the right to stay in the country. I came here in 2016 with my husband and my son but got a refugee card in 2017. I did not step out much of my Malviya Nagar house. I thought people would ask me my identity and I wouldn’t have any response,” says Farzana, in her late 30s. Currently working with Silaiwali, a handicraft venture by Iris Still and her husband Bishwadeep Moitra, she now considers India as her ‘home’.
When they arrive, the UN body offers them a blue paper and fortunate among those get the refugee card within months. “In 2018, we left Afghanistan and came to India. Every year they renew my blue paper but haven’t provided me with the refugee card,” says Sahaba Sehraz, a mother of four. In her mid-40s, Shahaba came to India with her husband and children from Jalalabad where Taliban attacked her husband twice for being a teacher.
While explaining the procedure of assigning refugee cards, a UNHCR official informs that the blue paper is an Under Consideration Card (UCC) and is given to all asylum seekers. “Then, we undertake the procedure called Refugee Status Determination (RSD) to determine whether they fled due to the threats of persecution or they are economic migrants,” he says.
“Irrespective of their card and status, basic assistance is provided to all refugees and asylum-seeker based on their needs and vulnerabilities,” notes Oscar Mundia, the outgoing Chief of Mission of UNHCR.
However, hopes are very rare among most of the Afghan refugees staying in different pockets of Bhogal, Malviya Nagar, Saket or Lajpat Nagar.
“They don’t treat us like humans when we go to their office. Are they offering us any facility at all?” asks Anjam. His concerns are echoed by Nageena Nazreen, 40, another Afghan resident of Bhogal who arrived in 2018. “For a few years, we got ration. After Covid, it stopped,” Nazreen says.
Lost Home, Lost Glory, Lost Clout
Most of these Afghan refugees currently striving to meet their ends, nevertheless, belonged to rich and powerful families back in their country. But, the emergence of the Taliban pushed them toward an unusual trade safety and peace against livelihood and lifestyle.
“I was born into a very wealthy family. We had properties, two private schools, gardens and whatnot. We had a dry fruit business,” says Anjam. However, my life changed in a minute. His father, who worked in the Ministry of Defence, and his elder brother were killed in a bomb blast during their journey from Kabul to Mazhar in 2005. After completing his graduation, he started teaching English in 2010. However, as the influence of the Taliban grew, he started receiving warnings. “They would ask why was I teaching English, a foreign language,” he says, recalling how he was asked to teach Persian or Arabic.
Due to consecutive threats, he left his hometown and came to India. “My sister came here in 2016. Her case was much more complicated as she got engaged with a person who we later got to know was a Talib. We broke the marriage and she had to flee to save her life,” he continues.
In 2019, he planned to bring his mother and another sister who are still in Kabul to India. “But she didn’t have a passport then. In 2020, the lockdown was imposed and in the following year, Talibs took over. I don’t know when I will be able to get them out of the mess,” he says.
The life of Shazia Kohistani, the former Deputy Mayor of Kabul, is another testimony to these powerful families' lost glory and clouts. Born in an educated family at the Kapisa province of Afghanistan, Kohistani witnessed Taliban atrocities since her childhood. “When I was in Class II, the woman principal of my school was killed by the Taliban,” says Kohistani, in her mid-50s.
However, her parents had let her study unless a Mujahideen wanted to marry her when she was just 14. “Due to the pressure, I was married off to one of my cousins at the age of 15,” she adds.
Her indomitable spirit led her to complete her 10th in 1995 and graduate in 2002. Thereafter, she took admission to Kabul University to study Persian literature. But, due to her fifth pregnancy, she had to discontinue her studies and instead started working in Kabul municipality. “In 2009, I became the Deputy Mayor of Kabul and next year fought the Parliamentary election. I lost and continued my social work. I also became the women spokesperson for NATO,” she adds.
Between 2015 and 2017, she used to run a radio programme titled Zan & Zindagi and addressed the issue of women's rights and liberty. Currently, the head of the Afghan Women’s Association, Kohistani spent most of her life in Afghanistan bearing the threats and warnings from Talibans. Her niece Freshta Kohistani, an Afghan Tajik woman activist was assassinated by Taliban in 2020. “But before that, they attacked our house several times. So, I along with my husband and six children came to India in 2019 leaving everything behind,” laments the activist.
Disproportionate Effects on Women
Being a Muslim woman and a refugee, Kohistani’s struggle is intersectional and much complicated than meets the eye. The disproportionate effect of refugee crisis on women could be gauged from the accounts of young women and single mothers who are struggling to feed and educate their children for a better future. As per UNHCR, 46 per cent of the refugees are women and young girls whereas 36 per cent of them are children. “My rights as a human and a woman seem to have been affected more because of my refugee status. I don’t have the right to represent myself in the space I am today. I wish I had, then maybe I would be living my life like you,” says Adiba Qayoumi, 23, who currently works at a diagnostic centre in Bhogal. After fleeing her country in 2019, she found a safe space. But safety doesn’t feed you. “In Afghanistan, education is banned for women. In India, education is not banned but it is an impossible right for us, refugees, because we are homeless,” says Adiba.
Nazreen worked as a nurse in Jalalabad. There, the challenges of her life as a woman and a mother of two were often accentuated by a husband who was a drug addict. Life took a rough turn for Nazreen as she was compelled to divorce her husband to have a stable life. Meanwhile she also lost one daughter to the war-like situation. To seek a safer life, she came to Delhi as a single mother and became a victim of sexual slurs in the lanes and alleys of Bhogal.
“Initially when I came here with just my daughter and would go around looking for houses and work, there would be men who would make unsolicited remarks. They would often approach me in a disrespectful way,” she breaks down recalling the difficult days she had to fight.
Despite being skilled in the health sector, Nazreen struggles to find a job and lives her life on borrowed money. She believes that when an Afghan woman has no ‘man to protect her, financially’, her social status, economic support, and emotional moorings become deranged.
Similar feelings of being a single mother are reiterated by Farida Khaekwan, 46, a mother to four children. She has been a single mother for over a decade and her journey from Kabul to Delhi was fraught with similar experiences besides the stress of poverty and displacement.
Farida, who lost her parents at a very young age, had first nikah at the age of 18. Back then, she did not know that her husband was suffering from a brain disease. After her fourth child was born, her husband passed away. She went back to leave with her brother.
“But you know what happens when a widow, with four children, starts staying with her maternal family. Society does not seem to forgive her for her existence,” says Farida. To protect herself from all the whispers and seek economic protection, Farida remarried and this time to a man, much older to her. When she was in Kabul, he would fly down from Sweden to visit them once a year. But ever since the family moved to Delhi in 2016, her husband has not come to see them.
Settled in Sweden with Swedish citizenship, her husband has been providing financial support to Farida and her children. However, he is close to 90 and owing to his health issues, he can no longer fend for them. Moreso, he has now sent divorce papers to Farida. “We don’t know how will we pull off our financial needs once the money stops flowing in,” says Farida, who currently makes crochet handicrafts and sells them to provide for her family.
Although she found work in 2021, it was only for a brief stint. Along with 7-8 women she undertakes weaving work to build up required community support. “Life is quite uncertain for us here and today, we do not what happens to us tomorrow,” says Nazreen, for whom, in Afghanistan, death was a matter of single blow whereas here, it becomes a slow process gobbling them up day by day.
But for Adiba, whose mother has been a civil activist and women’s rights advocate in Afghanistan, dying in India out of homelessness is a better choice to make than dying at the hands of the ‘animals, they call the Taliban’. “I refuse to be punished for my existence as a woman,” she says.
Searching for a Home?
While all of them left their homes in search of a safer shelter, could they manage to find a ‘home’?
Their anticipation of a good life went for a toss as they reach the country. “Indians are very good to us. But we have to suffer out of everyday discriminations. We are paid half the salary in private farms as we don’t have any work permit,” says Anjam. Besides, Afghan children are often not allowed to play in the parks. “Prices of vegetables are double for us. Why? Aren’t we all humans?” asks the teacher who celebrates Holi, Diwali and Eid with the local people. The major objectives behind starting Anjam Knowledge House was to equip the Afghan children with the necessary skills required to live in a foreign land. “We have to know and understand the Indian culture. So, we celebrate Holi, Diwali along with our festivals. There is no religious divide. We all are same,” he adds.
Still, in face of everyday discrimination, children sometimes ask him, “What is our sin, sir?” Anjam seems to have no answer.
The education of Afghan children in India has become another matter of concern for the refugees. Farida notes: “Firstly, my children got trained in BOSCO, an affiliate of UNHCR. Then, I sent them to MCD school where every subject is taught in Hindi. Due to the language barrier, they couldn’t study and ultimately were shifted to Afghan School.”
“We don’t have money to send our children to the private schools and the government schools need the knowledge of Hindi. So, in both ways, we are stuck,” says Nazreen. Her daughter is now studying in a nearby government school.
The only hope for most them lies with the BOSCO Refugee Assistance Programme—a collaborative facilitating efforts by UNHCR and BOSCO. Their centre was at Lajpat Nagar, but in 2014, they shifted it to Bhogal due to the higher density of Afghan refugees. “We provide them basic trainings in English, Hindi and computer, besides other livelihood skills,” says the manager of the centre. The children who are less than 14 are admitted to the government schools through their supports and anyone elder could join National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS).
“Some of them have done really well and joined us as volunteers. And others are working in different informal sectors ranging from sales to medicine,” he adds. There is another opportunity for the refugee students known as DAFI tertiary scholarship programme sponsored by German Embassy. “This also help the selected students to pursue their college and university level educations,” the BOSCO official notes.
Without Any Identity
The financial crisis is compounded by the uncertainty of identity and future. “We don’t know where we will go from here. We just want our children to study properly so that they don’t have our lives,” says Farzana.
Without any identity proofs like PAN card or Aadhaar card, they are even unable to have a bank account and hence proper employment or for that matter any right.
The UNHCR, in its response to Outlook, highlights the necessity of such recognitions. While extending their gratitude to the Indian government for its relentless support, the UN body says, “We, however, feel that having government issued IDs like Aadhaar will enhance their access and provide better opportunities in living dignified lives.”
The officials of BOSCO centre also are of the opinion that due to the absence of any identity proof, it is difficult for them to find employment in the formal sectors.
Another struggle for the Afghan Muslim refugees lies in the absence of the provision of Long-term Visa (LTV)—a primary step to gain citizenship. In 2018, far before the government of India passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Parliament, the possibilities of Muslim refugees from neighbouring countries getting citizenship became thin. In 2018, through a GO, it brought in amendments to Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950 and Foreigners Act, 1946 and noted, “Only members of minority communities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians are eligible to apply for LTVs.”
Identifying Afghan National holding LTVs was near impossible. However, the UNHCR official says: “The government has graciously granted Long Term Visas, known as Stay Visas, to Afghan nationals based on a well-founded fear of persecution. These visas are issued for one year and subsequently extended on an annual basis.” Is it only the absence of refugee policy that is forcing Afghan people to apply for Canada or Australia? “We cannot stay here forever. You know it well that Muslims are not safe here,” says Farzana who still hasn’t thought of applying to any country.
The memories of bomb blasts, however, never left them. Sharing her experiences of first Diwali, Farzana says, “When they were bursting firecrackers outside, me and my children got scared. I thought why it is happening in India. Will the blasts not leave us?” Then, she got to know that it was part of a festival. “Still, whenever I find boys bursting firecrackers, I feel like telling them, ‘Don’t do it. Your country is so peaceful. Save it.’ However, I can’t,” she adds.
Perhaps, the fear of being outsider restrains her from saying those words. “I don’t know when they will ask me to leave. It’s their country.” Amidst the cracks of uncertainties on her forehead, a ray of hope peeps in. “One day, I want to go back to home. I want to meet my mother. Thereafter, even if I die, I have no remorse. I would have seen my jannat—my paradise.”
(This appeared in the print at 'The Lost Home')